One of the crucial questions of the Middle Ages was how were the benefits of Christ’s death applied to the sinner who needed to be saved. Over the course of a few centuries, the Catholic Church had appropriated that power to itself, through sacraments that the church administered to its members. Those sacraments are: Baptism, Confirmation, the Eucharist, Penance, Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders, and Matrimony. The Catholic Church Catechism states that,
In other words, the Church becomes the custodian of grace and has the authority to mediate that grace to God’s people through the sacraments. But even then, a person’s salvation is not secure. There is additional work to be done. This is where the real problem lay.
In the 5th century AD there was a teacher in Rome called Pelagius who taught that man has the ability to seek God and fulfil the commands of God apart from the grace of God. In other words, a person is capable by his own free will to choose God or do good without the aid of divine intervention. He could do that because his nature is basically good.
Well, the Roman Catholic theologians wouldn’t go that far. They took on what is known as a semi-Pelagius view, saying that man’s will, though injured by the fall, is still free and cooperates with God’s grace in salvation. It’s like a 50-50 deal. We make the first move toward God and then He steps in and ‘helps us along.’ They even had a phrase – “God will not deny his grace to those who do their best” (the modern-day equivalent of “God helps those who help themselves”).
Against this the Reformers cried, “No, salvation is entirely by grace and grace alone.” Luther was very strong on this. In his book, The Bondage of the Will (which he claimed later in life to be his most important work), he argues that man’s will is bound in sin making him unable to respond to the gospel, and that it requires a special work of God’s grace to bring his salvation about. This doesn’t mean that the will is inactive. It means that wherever it is active in faith and obedience, God is the One who causes it to be so. This is the essence of Sola Gratia – it is God’s grace working alone in our salvation.
This is no small issue here. For Luther, the issue of man’s bondage to sin was the root issue of the Reformation — and the lynchpin of Protestantism. The Catholic Church agreed. Irwin Lutzer says, “The Roman Catholic Church regarded he freedom of the will as the central issue in Luther’s split with the church.”
Perhaps you might grasp the difference between the two with this illustration. Picture a man drowning in the water and God throws him a rope. Whether he grabs the rope or not is his own choice. Even after he grabs it, he must, by his own efforts hang on to it. That’s Rome’s position on God’s grace (and, when it comes down to it, the position of many evangelical churches today). Luther would say the man is not only drowning; he’s unconscious. He cannot respond because he is unable to respond. God must intervene and “awaken” his will so that he believes.
So what does Scripture teach? That is what really matters. In 2 Timothy 1 Paul reminds Timothy what the heart of the gospel is:
“He has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began. This has now been made evident through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who has abolished death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.” (2 Timothy 1:9–10)
Now I want you to look at this closely with me.
- Who, according to Paul is the one who does the saving in this passage? Do we save ourselves or does God save us? God save us.
- Was this based on anything we have done? No, it was based solely on God’s purpose and grace.
- When was this saving grace given to us? It was given before time began.
- How was this grace given to us? Was it bestowed on us when we took sacraments or took steps to obey God? No, it was given in and through the person of Christ.
Paul is teaching us in this passage that salvation, from start to finish, is all of grace. It’s grace at the start, grace to the end, and grace in the middle. The moment we add human works or human effort to the mix, it ceases to be grace. As Paul puts it in the book of Romans,
“Now if by grace, then it is not by works; otherwise grace ceases to be grace.” (Romans 11:6)
You say, “Well then what do I bring to the table of my salvation? I must bring something?” Yes, you do – your sin. We bring our sin and God brings his grace. We say, “Lord, nothing in my hands I bring, only to the cross I cling.” And God says, “That’s all that is required. You are saved by my grace and my grace alone.”
Do you find that difficult? I’m sure you do. Because we don’t like hearing those kinds of things. It goes against our nature. We all like to think there is some good in us. But face to face with God – alone, just you and him, are you not (truly) good. In fact, according to the Bible there is not one iota of good in you.
“As it is written: There is no one righteous, not even one. There is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away; all alike have become worthless. There is no one who does what is good, not even one.” (Romans 3:10–12)
This is God’s assessment of the entire human race. And unless we truly grasp this, unless we understand our true spiritual condition prior to salvation, we will never understand what grace really is. Luther said,
“Man must completely despair of himself in order to become fit for the grace of Christ. The proper preparation for the grace and goodness of Christ is the awareness that I need them.”
I think all this is summed up so well in the great hymn from Charles Wesley – “And Can it Be?” Here are two stanzas I really love:
Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quick’ning ray—
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.
No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in Him, is mine;
Alive in Him, my living Head,
And clothed in righteousness divine,
Bold I approach th’ eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.
For Wesley, the message of “Grace Alone” was a prison escape. It’s a message of liberation, not captivity. It causes people to flourish and thrive. It’s a message about God reaching down to poor, helpless creatures who have no ability in of themselves to make themselves better – truly better, and saying “Let me work in you. My grace can not only save you, it can utterly transform you.” And he does.
God offers you that freedom in His Son. All that is needed is to surrender yourself completely and utterly to him. He will cleanse you. He will renew you. And he will create the will in you to do what you cannot do yourself.
His grace is sufficient. His grace, alone.
 Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, p.224